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NASA: Mystery object is 54-year-old rocket, not asteroid

NASA: Mystery object is 54-year-old rocket, not asteroid

This Sep 20, 1966, photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum shows an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Photo: AP/Convair, General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection, San Diego Air and Space Museum)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is a 54-year-old rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed on Wednesday (Dec 2).

Observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched its identity, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The object was classified as an asteroid after its discovery in September, but NASA’s top asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, quickly suspected it was the Centaur upper rocket stage from Surveyor 2, a failed 1966 moon-landing mission.

Size estimates had put it in the range of the old Centaur, which was about 10m long and 3m in diameter.

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Chodas was proven right after a team led by the University of Arizona's Vishnu Reddy used an infrared telescope in Hawaii to observe not only the mystery object, but - just on Tuesday - a Centaur from 1971 still orbiting Earth. The data from the images matched.

“This conclusion was the result of a tremendous team effort,” Reddy said in a statement. “We were finally able to solve this mystery."

The object formally known as 2020 SO entered a wide, lopsided orbit around Earth last month and, on Tuesday, made its closest approach at about 50,000km.

It will depart the neighbourhood in March next year, shooting back into its own orbit around the sun. Its next return: 2036.

Source: AP/kg

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